The Motherhood of Jesus in the Gospel of John
The figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, appears in only two passages in the whole gospel of John but at very significant places: John 2:1-11; 19:25-27. In both cases, her motherhood is at the centre. Not only does John 19:25-27 constitute the central scene in the Johannine account of the crucifixion and death of Jesus at Golgatha but also it has strong links with the whole gospel, particularly the episode of Cana. Thus it becomes the point of departure for a theological reflection on Mary’s vocation within the Gospel framework of John. While the narrative of Cana (2:1-11) stresses her natural motherhood and her concern for earthly things (they have no more wine), at the foot of the cross (cf. 19:25-27), her motherhood is transformed into a universal motherhood that generates children for Christ. In effect new relationships are born under the cross.
Our exposition consists of two sections. First, I shall locate the text in its literary context and show how this can contribute to our understanding of the events narrated. Second, I will explain the text, demonstrating the new relationships that are born under the cross. Special attention will be paid to the Spiritual Motherhood of Mary as an expression of true discipleship and the generation of new disciples in the messianic age.
1. The Literary Context
The events of Golgatha to which the account of Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross belong have messianic tones. Its literary contexts testify to this Johannine messianic plan and unites our text to what immediately precedes and follows it. The immediate context (John 19:23-24) narrates the episode of the tunic of Jesus that was not divided by the soldiers but allotted by casting lots. The evangelist John does not attribute any reason for this act and decision from the soldiers. Some scholars see in the undivided tunic John’s allusion to the universal mission of Jesus: a symbol of God’s children united around the cross (John 11:52). ‘Tunic’ in the Old Testament was the garment of the high priest which was also a symbol of his office. Its unique mention here probably refers to Jesus’ body in a symbolic way and to the unity of the new messianic community about to be born through his mediation.
It is to be noted how the narrative context evokes the presence of other people: soldiers, women, a disciple, who in a way can be said to be a representation of all humanity: gentiles and the faithful. The proclamation of ‘motherhood’ and ‘sonship’ from the cross transforms the participants in the event into a new humanity. Indeed, it is presumed that all (soldiers, the women, and the beloved disciple ) were looking on when Jesus made his proclamation since the text does not say otherwise. Instead, it says in v.29 that after Jesus declared he was thirsty and the soldiers soaked a sponge in a jar of vinegar, they mounted it on the stalk of a hyssop plant and raised it to his lips.
In 19:28-30, the death of Jesus is recounted with a strong insistence on the verbs of completion (19:28.30) of the messianic work and fulfilment of the scriptures (19:28). The phrase ‘after this’ in verse 28 closely links the scene of the death of Jesus on the cross with the preceding account of Mary and the beloved disciple. We could also see revealed in it John’s intention of rendering and interpreting what immediately precedes it as the culmination of Jesus’ messianic act. That the messianic revelation culminates in this event is further made precise by the verbal form ‘have been consummated’ and its subject ‘all things’. The structure of the verse permits us to see the fulfilment of the scriptures in the event of the cross, rendered concrete in the words of Jesus in v. 27: “woman, behold your son” and “behold your mother”. Jesus loved his own till the end (13:1); till the cross where he could say “all is consummated”.
2. New Relationships Born under the Cross at Golgatha
The main characters in 19:25-27 are «his mother», «the beloved disciple», and «Jesus». Notwithstanding the presence of other persons at the foot of the cross (cf. vv. 24-25, the soldiers, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary of Magdala), the narrative focuses on the special relationship established between his mother, the beloved disciple and Jesus, brought into being by the death of Jesus and made manifest by the words: “Woman, behold your son” and “behold your mother” (v.27).
It is of significance that the two main characters, unlike others present at the scenery are not indicated by their personal names. Instead, they are referred to descriptively as: his mother, woman, and the beloved disciple.
Mary, in fact, is nowhere in the gospel of John designated by her proper name. For example, she is addressed by the crowd as his mother (cf. 2: 1.3.5) at the marriage feast at Cana during which Jesus also refers to her as woman. This is one of the two places in the whole gospel of John where the mother of Jesus is present. Most commentators see a close relation between this event and that of our pericope because of its messianic tones expressed by the words: woman and hour. Reference to one’s mother as woman is extraneous to Semitic thought. The significance of Jesus addressing his mother as woman in the two accounts is illumined by 13:1-2. Jesus realises his hour has come to leave the world to his father and so showed the full extent of his love to his own. In the Cana episode his hour had not yet come so he and his mother had no common concern. On the cross, the hour is due and his words and last act to his mother reveal a role that puts her in intimate relationship with the beloved disciple.
Like Mary, the identity of the beloved disciple is also not revealed. In John 18: 15-17, he is designated as the other disciple who went along with Jesus to the high priest’s court. After Peter denied Jesus, this “other disciple” remained with him till under the cross and the evangelist presents him as an eyewitness and testimony to the gospel tradition (19:35).
We can, therefore, note that the personal identity of these main characters is not the main focus of the evangelist. The roles which are assigned to them, because of their relationship with the dying Jesus, are the point of emphasis. This relationship is revealed by the gesture and action of Jesus in 19,26. It follows a revelatory scheme used three other times already in the gospel (cf.1: 29.36.47).
The principal actions in vv. 26 and 27a are those of Jesus. He sees and says. The verb seeing with Jesus as subject is very important in the gospel tradition as it is most often followed by a call to discipleship (cf. Mark 1:16.19) which reveals the new identity and relationship of the one called to Jesus. In the “behold your son”, primarily, John reveals the new relationship between Mary and Jesus which is concretely manifested in her relationship with the beloved disciple. Likewise, the “behold your mother” confers and confirms a new relationship between the disciple and Mary founded on the act of the cross. That new relationships are established is thus clear. The question, however, is how must these be understood? What types of relationships are inaugurated and brought into being?
2.1 The Spiritual Motherhood of Mary: A Call to Discipleship.
Certainly, the relationships so established between the Johannine Jesus and the two figures mean more than filial or familial care, though, these are not to be precluded. We would rather think that the words of Jesus have theological import with a spiritual significance. Such a line of thought is well founded in the gospel itself; John’s gospel is full of signs which point to realities other than what are literally narrated. With the expression ‘behold your son’ and ‘behold your mother’ the speaker reveals the mystery of the special salvific mission that the one referred to will undertake. Motherhood and sonship proclaimed from the cross have an intrinsic value for God’s salvific plan and are inseparably related to what is being accomplished in the elevation of Jesus on the cross. By spiritual motherhood we do not intend a purely symbolic interpretation. Rather, we would want to show how the discipleship of Mary makes her a mother and how it could be viewed as part of the divine salvific plan. In other words, her motherhood evokes her discipleship and her discipleship confirms her motherhood.
Some biblical passages which help us to penetrate the theological significance of the revelation of the motherhood of Mary proclaimed on the cross include the following: a. Isa 60:4-5 which tells of the creation of the New Jerusalem and the gathering of her children around her feet; b. Isa 54 which recounts the making of a new covenant in which Sion is viewed as the spouse of God his creator (cf. Gen 1:26; 2: 21. 24).
Drawing a “theological analogy” between these texts and our pericope enriches our understanding of the text. The point is not to draw a symbolic interpretation but to demonstrate how the new relationship established between Mary and the beloved disciple has analogous imagery in the Scriptures. In the words addressed to the woman, we can discover the vocation of the sonship of man; and in those addressed to the man, we can also discover that the vocation of the woman is to be a mother. In this way the image of the new creation is evoked under the cross. We must also admit that Mary’s motherhood is her call to true discipleship. Together with the beloved disciple, a new community of discipleship is born under the cross. There is a transformation from natural family to a messianic family; a community of true disciples who follow Jesus to ‘the consummation of all things’ and are so constituted by him.
2.2 The Community of Disciples: The Church
Jesus, dying on the cross, constituted His mother and the beloved disciple as a family: ‘here is your son’ and ‘here is your mother’. This community is the expressed last will of Jesus. In 19:27b, the evangelist shows the profound nature of life in this community. Though he does not directly say it, the ideas expressed in the verse point to that.
The adverbial clause, “and from that hour”, refers not to the moment of the death of Jesus but to the chronology of events thereafter. To the unspecified time is linked up the verbal form “he took” of which the unnamed disciple is the subject. As it stands, the evangelist only conveys the fact as having taken place with Mary as the object and “to be his own” is put in dative relationship (dative of place). Two parallel and opposing interpretations, all parting from the analysis of the Greek text have been proposed. Some scholars think that these words must be understood in their literal sense: that the disciple took her to his home. Others on the other hand prefer a spiritual connotation: that Mary was accepted into the spiritual intimacy of the disciple. We would rather, taking into account the Johannine preference for signs and significance, adopt an interpretation which takes the text as it is but also seeks a deeper meaning. It cannot be denied that the dying Jesus had in mind also the material care of the mother; however, that is not the point of emphasis in the narrative. What is peculiar to the beloved disciple; what is ‘his own’ is neither his house nor his spiritual space but that he is the disciple par excellence. His mother becoming the mother of the disciple and the disciple taking her to his own (home), describes how the true family of Jesus, the community of disciples, is constituted.
After all these, Jesus saw that all his work has been brought to fulfilment. The messianic community has been inaugurated and Mary’s role in it as a disciple is fundamental; it entails motherhood not only to the physical son ‘Jesus’, but to all called and united under the cross to the dying Jesus.
The motherhood of Mary generates new disciples in the messianic age and also gathers them into one family. The character of this new community is founded on the love of Christ, to which Mary is the focal point. Thus, in the messianic age she is the disciple par excellence. It is on this that her spiritual motherhood is founded. She is not ‘a mother’ of all if not for this her unique position in the discipleship of Christ.
Accordingly, we could say that John’s presentation of Mary at the foot of the cross evokes the theme of the image of Lady Zion giving birth to a new generation (cf. Isa 2:2-5; Ps 87:5). The new generation is the messianic community which could be identified with the church.
The image of Mary as the true disciple and mother flow into the image of the church who brings forth children modelled after Jesus. A relationship of loving care binds the children to the church just as the beloved disciple is bound to Mary.
The motherhood of Mary has been radically transformed into a spiritual motherhood under the cross by the dying Jesus. It has its foundation in the death of Jesus which becomes the moment of regeneration of humanity; the moment of recreation. Her spiritual motherhood reflects the image and role of the church into which new disciples are born. It became operative already under the cross in the generation of the beloved disciple and has since continued. The will of the ‘dying Jesus’ that birth into the messianic community be through the ‘spiritual motherhood’ of Mary. Her spiritual motherhood, therefore, has a unique function in the salvific plan of God.
Rev. Fr. Dr. George Ossom-Batsa
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